Season 2, Episode 6: On Nature, Poetry and Creativity with Kim Stafford

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Season 2, Episode 6: On Nature, Poetry and Creativity with Kim Stafford

Thomas and Panu were joined by long-time writing teacher and former Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford for an uplifting dialogue about creativity and finding daily inspiration in our relationship with nature. Kim shared poems, quotes and lessons drawn from his teaching and daily writing practice. Echoing British landscape writer Robert McFarlane, Kim observed: “A landscape that has not been evocatively described becomes easy to destroy.” As the days grow shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, join us for an energizing conversation that ranged across cultures from the epic poetry of Finland to Native American wisdom.

Links

Selections from Kim Stafford:

Transcript

Transcript edited for clarity and brevity.

Thomas Doherty: Please support the Climate Change and Happiness Podcast. See the donate page at climatechangeandhappiness.com.

[music: “CC&H theme music”]

Introduction voice: Welcome to Climate Change and Happiness, an international podcast that explores the personal side of climate change. Your feelings, what the crisis means to you, and how to cope and thrive. And now, your hosts, Thomas Doherty and Panu Pihkala.

Thomas Doherty: Hello! I am Thomas Doherty.

Panu Pihkala: And I am Panu Pihkala.

Doherty: And welcome to Climate Change and Happiness. Our podcast. The show for people around the world who are thinking and feeling deeply about the personal side of climate change. Particularly in this podcast we talk about people’s emotions and feelings. Their private life. And we are very honored to have a guest today.

Kim Stafford: Hello, I’m Kim Stafford. I’m glad to be with the two of you and everyone.

Doherty: And Kim is an old and treasured colleague of mine. I don’t get to see Kim very often these days. But as we were talking earlier before the episode, Kim was one of my allies and support in some of my academic adventures. Particularly creating an ecopsychology certificate program for counselors. Which I did about a decade ago. And that was a really tough sell at the time in academia. Things have changed now, and people are scrambling to do this kind of work. We were a bit ahead of the curve. And so Kim was always there. Kim being the resident poet and writer in my program at Lewis and Clark. And so we’ll talk about Kim’s work and his work as a poet. And Oregon Poet Laureate. We’re going to share some memories. And also some poems. Panu, do you want to get us started?

Pihkala: Gladly. And warmly welcome, Kim. It’s a great pleasure to meet you. And in this podcast we’ve often talked about the arts in various ways. Sometimes devoting entire episodes for it. Music, for example. But we haven't really talked much about poetry. So that’s a very exciting thing to do. And I was wondering, actually, to get us started, would there be, Kim, some poem that would especially resonate with you today that you’d like to share with us?

Stafford: Yeah, thank you Panu. I’m going to read a poem called Advice From a Raindrop. And first say that one thing that works for me in writing is to speak in the voice of a creature. You know, to speak in the first person as a tree. As a wave. As a river. Is one way to immerse myself in the healing properties of the natural world. So this is Advice From a Raindrop:

You think you’re too small
to make a difference? Tell me
about it. You think you’re
helpless, at the mercy of forces
beyond your control? Been there.

Think you’re doomed to disappear,
just one small voice among millions?
That’s no weakness, trust me. That’s
your wild card, your trick, your
implement. They won’t see you coming

until you’re there, in their faces, shining,
festive, expendable, eternal. Sure you’re
small, just one small part of a storm that
changes everything. That’s how you win,
my friend, again and again and again.

Doherty: Thanks Kim. That was really nice on a rainy day here in Portland. It makes me think differently of the raindrops because they are inexorable right now here.

Pihkala: Yes. Thanks a lot, Kim, for selecting that. And that immediately resonates with many things in my mind. Of course the actual rain. But when coming to the topic we often discuss here, it is the emotional side of the ecological crisis and climate crisis. One particularly common feeling that people have orients around helplessness. And sometimes feeling inadequate. So for me, for example, this poem speaks quite directly to that feeling that I’ve noticed that many people have.

Stafford: Yeah. To not be alone. I mean that’s one of the big remedies for helplessness in my life. You know, even if I feel that my views about how human work should be connected. If I feel alone as a human, I’m accompanied by the rain. By the singing birds. By the trees who didn't get the memo that they should be discouraged. They just keep reaching for the sky.

Doherty: Yeah. Yeah, we talk about environmental identity. Our identity in relation to nature. You know, nature can be part of our identity, but what you’re talking about is our ecological self. You know, that sense that we are nature. And so we are really, you know, part of the weather. Part of the raindrops. Which is really hard in the climate change era because it’s threatening. And people are feeling even more, unfortunately, separate from nature because of this anxiety. And eco-anxiety stuff that’s going around.

Stafford: Well, maybe I still have a childish sense of the world. I remember in school when [the] history teacher started into a lecture by saying, “you know for primitive people, the wind was a being. And stones were beings. And rivers were beings. But now we know. And so on and so on.” And I thought, “Wait a minute. No. That’s right! That’s the way it is. The weather is, you know, my companion. The weather’s moods are my moods. There’s this permeable non-boundary between what’s inside me and what’s all around me.”

Pihkala: Yeah. That’s very profoundly put I think. And resonates with many things which are growing now in popularity like this post-humanistic discourse where people are trying to think more critically about these boundaries. And [it] also reminds me of Per Espen Stoknes. A Norwegian psychologist and author who did a book about [the] psychology of climate change. [What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action, 2015]. But then he has a final chapter on air. Loving the air. And forming a very intimate relationship with air and wind. Partly drawing from the Sami people and a famous Sami poet.

Stafford: Ah yeah. Yeah we had a class here in Oregon taught by a native woman CMarie Fuhrman. And she told the students, you know, when they were saying how sad they were about human treatment of the earth and so on. She said well, you know there’s one thing you need to remember. The earth loves you. The earth is glad you’re here. The earth is glad you’re noticing things. You are being loved. You are being cherished. And suddenly the responsibility for the relationship was not on the shoulders of the misbehaving human. You know, we’re children in this great motherland. Feel yourself being cherished.

Doherty: Yes. And that brings up, I think Kim, what I know you for is your presence in, you know, when we work together. And in the workshops that you do. And I’ve always thought your style of teaching poetry and doing workshops was always very therapeutic. Like it always seemed. It wasn't therapy directly, but it was personal and very therapeutic. I remember, I mean, some of your insights. A saying that I often quote of yours when I’m working with people. That I remember from the old days. Just like your dad William Stafford who is known for aphorisms, you’re known for your aphorisms also. And one that you would say was “We are ready for when the barriers fall.” It’s a statement of yours.

Stafford: Yeah. That’s actually from Emily Carr. A Canadian writer who said that creativity does not consist of overcoming barriers, but of being available when the barriers lift. You know, so Hamlet’s readiness is all to be ready. Not to be discouraged that all is lost, but to be perennially like a child. Curious about what’s next. What could happen. What could open.

Doherty: So that’s great. That’s neat. Because that’s what happens with these quotes. You know, I think it’s your quote. And of course it’s from Emily Carr.

Stafford: Who knows who she got it from, Thomas.

Doherty: Yeah, exactly. But I always read that in terms of movements. And being a change agent. That sometimes we just need to be ready for when the barriers fall. Socially. Structurally. To take action. And so we’re biding our time. You know, we’re staying with our values. But of course, there’s also the creative side. We’re ready for when the insight and the muse. The insight. The ability to express ourselves happens. But anyway, there’s a holding. There’s a social holding and I think people come away with maybe we can talk about just the importance of the expression of any kind. And how poetry is helpful.

Stafford: Yeah. You know as we’re talking I’m realizing I have an adventure every morning. And that is when I start sitting at my desk. It’s dark. It’s raining outside this morning. And I’m looking at this blank piece of paper. And I’m realizing there’s something wonderful about not knowing. You know, not knowing that terrible things are happening. Not knowing that far away people are suffering. You know, that’s all in the background, but before me is this open space. And when I start putting words down, if it’s not too big a claim, it’s a kind of miracle. You know, there was nothing there and now there’s something. It’s like a little plant starting to grow. Something is growing before my eyes. And so to me that is my daily therapeutic opportunity to go from worry to nothing to something.

Doherty: Mhmm.

Pihkala: Has this always been with you? Did you start doing this already as a child or a young person or how did you come to it?

Stafford: I think, Panu, it really started by going into the woods. You know, when I was a little kid there was a forest. There was a canyon. There were a bunch of thickets. A creek. A tree you could climb. A hollow log you could wriggle through. And that sense of, you know, what’s there? What am I going to find today? And I would come home and my grandmother would say, Kimmy what did you find today? You know, I think that’s probably the thing to say to a child. What are you thinking? What did you see? And that my grandmother’s curiosity really was the foundation of what I bring to the page. What have I found? You know, what am I finding?

Pihkala: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. And I very much personally resonate with this sense of adventure as something very key to life. And sort of keeping the child in us alive. Strongly reminded of Rachel Carson who I have very high appreciation for. And many people know her for the Silent Spring, but there’s the wonderful trilogy of books about the sea which are filled with both wonder and scientific analysis. And then there’s the small book about cultivating a sense of wonder, also with children.

Stafford: And think, Panu, she was dying of cancer. And she wrote this beautiful book for children. A Sense of Wonder. I think that’s the elixir. I don’t know if it will save us, but will it save us today? You know, it will save our readiness to try. To keep trying. To keep reaching. To keep being curious. A sense of wonder.

Doherty: So that speaks to this idea. We often talk about what people’s eco emotions are. And so I think Kim you’re talking about that. What else comes up for you when you think about your eco feelings or eco emotions?

Stafford: Yeah. Well, you know, every morning the birds. I wrote this poem recently about the one bird that, you know, cries out first. At four in the morning. At three in the morning. And starts singing. And pretty soon dawn comes. And I imagine that little bird saying “look what I made happen. Again. I brought the light.” I think I will make something. To put something forth. To reach out to a friend. To write a letter. To have a conversation. To take a walk with someone. To learn something new. You know, that little cry of the spirit locally may not seem like much, but it’s what’s been keeping the earth going for billions of years. What’s that next thing? You know, what little thing can I do that’s part of something much bigger. But it’s not nothing.

Pihkala: Would you happen to have that poem at hand? Or some other poem that you would like to share in relation to these things?

Stafford: Yeah. Well I have a funny little poem here called Foolish Young Flowering Plum. You know, there’s a certain time in the early, very early spring when the wild plum trees are the first to, you know, get ahead of the game and flaunt their colors. So I was walking along. It was just starting to get light in the morning. Late winter really. Foolish Young Flowering Plum.

It’s winter — dark days, still too cold
for bird or blossom — dull sky,
and all our hearts in shadow.
But there — at a ragged cleft
darkened by cedars of gloom
a flash of light cries out —
the incandescent wisp of wild
plum — far too early to be
so happy, so naive, a child
refusing to obey the rules of grief.

[from Singer Come from Afar, Red Hen Press, 2021]

Doherty: Like one of my sayings , our feelings are wild so we have to just, you know, observe them. Just like we would be out in nature. And if you make a lot of noise and blunder around, you’re going to scare everything away. And so, but there’s that wildness even when we’re down or feeling depressed. Like we’ll see something. Something will happen. It’s that attentiveness to the flux of emotions. That’s really helpful.

Stafford: Yeah. I have a spectacular example of this. You know, my brother took his life when he was forty. And our family went into the darkest time. And I was asking my father about this. He was far away when it happened. He had to fly home. And he was telling me about it. He said “well I couldn't sleep, of course. And I got up early. And I got to the airport. And we were flying west. And as we came down into Denver, I looked up in the sky and there’s a kind of a buckskin light over Colorado. I’ve seen it before.” And I said “Daddy, that’s the greatest gift you’ve given me. That no matter how dark things are, you see something and it lifts you. You see something new and it lifts you”. And I think that’s really our opportunity with the natural world to be lifted. By things we haven't ruined yet.

Pihkala: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. And sorry to hear about that loss. And we briefly talked with Thomas in one of the episodes about the work of Bill Plotkin. Who is one of these eco psychology people who tries to serve the world by organizing people's chances to go into more natural surroundings. And try to be open and receptive to whatever grabs one’s attention.

Stafford: Well Thomas when we were at the grad school together, you know, the way I teach writing is I tell my students this is your hippy dippy fuzzy wuzzy touchy feely class. You know, where we’re trying to listen to our hearts. And write what we feel and so on. And one of my very serious colleagues at the graduate school, you know, with a dismissive wave of her hand said you know, the way you teach writing, Kim, that’s just therapy. And I didn’t say it but through my mind went the sentence, my brother died because he didn’t get that. Don’t just say therapy to me. Happiness is very, very practical. A sense of wellbeing is profoundly practical.

Doherty: Yeah. Yeah so that speaks to our kind of inner policing of ourselves. Which is something to be aware of. You know, particularly during this crisis of politics and climate. You know, we can get kind of harsh with others. But then with ourselves too. Even therapeutic people surprisingly. I remember one of my colleagues dismissing me because I was teaching a wilderness therapy class where we were going out camping in nature. And taking the counselors out on river rafting trips to test themselves. And he just [said] they’re just going river rafting. You know, as if that was irrelevant.

Stafford: And we’re in a classroom using big words.

Doherty: Yes exactly. As if that was irrelevant to life. And it really strikes what’s the danger of, you know, the ivory tower. And then we have the green tower. Which is a kind of purity. I’m more eco-friendly. I have to be very eco-friendly. And all this sort of stuff and so. And I know that infiltrates writing and literature just as well, I know. You seem to be able to kind of avoid that kind of piousness.

Stafford: Well, you know, they say that with poetry if you do it long enough you can work your way into two figures.

Doherty: Yeah. Yeah exactly. Yeah.

Pihkala: What about Kim, things written by other people? We touched on Rachel Carson, but speaking of this general topic of ecological issues. Climate issues. Are there some writers whose poems or texts have moved you?

Stafford: I think one of the people for me is Robert McFarlane. In the UK. He has this one sentence that I think is absolutely foundational to what we’re living now. A landscape that has not been evocatively described, becomes easier to destroy. A landscape that has not been evocatively described, becomes easier to destroy. So the work of the writer, in the era of climate change is to see things. To help people see things. To help people hear the amazing voices of the earth. And so that we can’t just say well let’s pave it. Let’s develop it. You know, let’s make it more human. Let’s string some wires, you know. No, it’s beautiful. That place is beautiful. Let’s get our power from apprehending the beauty of what’s around us. So, again, beauty is very practical.

Doherty: Yeah. Panu, what are you thinking about from the Finnish side? I know there’s a strong tradition of this. We were joking about Kim’s early youthful travels in Scandinavia. And the sense of the culture there. And the acceptance. And the freedom to roam. And all kinds of things that are part of that culture. But what’s coming up for you on the Finnish side even in terms of literature or some of your work over there?

Pihkala: Yeah. Just during the last 20 years I’ve been reading a triology, written in the 1950s and 60s by this Finnish natural scientist called Reino Kalliola. He was one of the first state persons for environmental protection in his time. But he was also a humanist and a lover of arts. So he was doing exactly the thing that Kim mentioned here. So he was doing sort of natural science about Finland, but he was doing it so eloquently. And also drawing from classic Finnish literature. And they did prints of his books with printed paintings by the Finnish artists also. [e.g. Suomen luonto vuodenaikojen vaihtelussa, 1959]. So it was really a combination of both the natural science and the lyrical depiction. And that was really foundational for the Finnish environmentalism. So that very strongly resonates with me.

Stafford: Well Panu, I’m going to reveal my ignorance, but I can’t remember the name of the person who went all over what is now Finland to create the Kalevala. And, you know, I heard many local stories in many places and put them into one big song that, from my reading, really formed the Finnish nation. I feel like maybe our work now is to gather songs in a kind of overwhelming wave to wake up the human project. You know, a sense that we’re all in this together and we can all make a difference. And let’s sing our kinship into a new way to do things.

Pihkala: That’s very beautifully put. And Kalevala. The national epic collection of the …. Very old rhythmic poems. Elias Lönnrot is probably the one that you are after here. And it’s a tricky name for everybody outside of Finland. They were still alive, some of these old poem singers. And so that’s very foundational for us Finns. And did have an influence on J.R.R Tolkien’s mythology, for example. And also for the music of Sibelius. So it’s been contributing in different art forms also outside Finland. And it has a special thing around nature, of course, going around.

And poetry is still going strong in Finland. Of course the number of sales are not as high as poets would like them to be. Or lovers of poetry. And many Finnish poets have been moving onto describing various dimensions of the ecological crisis, also. Sometimes trying to explore the beauty of these strange combinations of built environment and natural environment. And that’s very difficult stuff to translate into English because of the peculiarity of the Finnish language. But some sort of collective singing or poem making is going on around here. But that’s a very interesting thought about comparing Kalevala to the themes of today.

Stafford: Well I have a little story for you. I was at a Finnish immigrant community in the Northwest here. Naselle. And the self appointed mayor was telling jokes in Finnish. And hundreds of people were cracking up. So I know I’m onto something here. And then he translated one of the stories. He said, you know I was talking to my neighbor Arnie and I said Arnie, home come you’re so talented? You’re a musician. You’re a fisherman. You’re a woodworker. You do some writing. How do you do all those things? And Arnie said well, you know, I’m Finnish. A Finn does what he wants to do. Other people just do what they know how to do. And I think there’s a secret there. We each need to do what we want to do. And not let people tell us, no you’re not good enough to do that. We just need to say. I’m going to save the earth, personally, but not alone. And here we go. And we’ll do what we can.

Doherty: Yeah. That’s a good segue, Kim. I’m channeling the listeners who are out there and I think they’re feeling uplifted by the energy in these kinds of conversations when we bring in arts and poetry is really uplifting. Because it’s not denying the world, but it’s just looking at the world from a certain angle of sight. You know, that reveals all this beauty and surprise.

But I know, Kim, you do a lot of teaching of writing to people. Young people, for example. People that don’t see themselves as literary. For the listener that’s listening and saying, okay this is all well and good, but I’ve never written a poem. And I don’t have all this knowledge and these stories. What are some of your kind of takeaway tools and advice for small writing practices? Because I know that’s a part of your teaching.

Stafford: Sure. Yeah. Well I learned a great secret from my predecessor. Who was the poet laureate in Oregon before. Elizabeth Woody. Who is [a] Wasco-Navajo native woman. And she said at one point, you know, the more I do poetry, the less it’s about what the poem is and more about who the poem serves. And that became my mission as poet laureate. And as a poet. And as a citizen. Who the poem serves.

So I started inviting people. And maybe I can invite our listeners to do some optional homework. Think of someone in your life who needs a poem. And then write one for that person. Write a poem for someone. And I realized that’s sort of what I do. You know, I go to a place. I write a poem for the place. Not about the place. For the place. I’m in a community. You know, I went to visit some inmates in prison. I wrote a poem for them. I worked with some immigrants. I wrote a poem for them. And here’s an example of a little poem written by a child. I was in a fourth grade classroom. And I said to the students, think of someone in your life who needs a poem. And make one for them. And this little guy turned in a poem. It goes like this. It’s called Max. Which is the name of his friend.

There are 200 countries.
There are 50 states.
There are 7 oceans to cross.
There are 7 continents.
There are billions of stars.
And I met you.

It’s so little. It’s so beautiful. It’s so friendly. You know, so it’s not about skill, it’s about curiosity and courage to say what’s in your heart.

Doherty: Yes. Yeah, let’s let that hang in the air for a moment here. And for the listeners as well. You know, it’s a long slog. And we do need these kinds of slivers of light. It reminds me of the saying that was in the movie The Postman years ago. “Poems don’t belong to the people who wrote them, they belong to people who need them.” [“Poetry doesn't belong to those who write it; it belongs to those who need it.”]

Stafford: Yes.

Doherty: Yes. It was something along those lines. So I know we all think about what we need. We’re toward the end of our time. Kim, would you like to give the listeners another poem today?

Stafford: Yeah. This is sort of my theme song. One way to write a poem is to go to rhymezone.com. And just take a salt shaker and sprinkle rhymes through a poem and see what happens. So this is called I Am the Seed. I’m circling back to, you know, I am speaking in the voice of the raindrop. I am speaking in the voice of the seed. I Am the Seed.

Every chance I get, any place I fit,
in a cleft of grit, in ravine or pit
by ancient wit my husk I split—
I am the seed.

I fell to the ground without a sound,
by rainfall drowned, by sunlight found,
by wonder crowned, by luck profound—
I am the seed.

After fiery thief, after bout of grief,
though life is brief I sprout relief,
with tiny leaf, beyond belief—
I am the seed.

Up I rise to seek the prize
from all that dies, by bold surprise,
before your eyes, small and wise—
I am the seed.

I am the seed, small as a bead.
Tell me your need. Your hunger I’ll feed—
any trouble you’re in, I will begin,
for I am the seed!

Doherty: Very nice.

Pihkala: Thank you. Thank you for sharing.

Doherty: Panu, what are you sitting with here? Or Kim, what are you sitting with here? We wrap up here in this nice dialogue.

Stafford: I’m sitting here. I get to be with two people far away. And in just a few moments we got into deep, important things. And that’s a perennial opportunity for human beings. No matter what is against us. Around us. Ahead of us. We can sit down together and share a cup of tea and our thoughts. And we will be stronger.

Doherty: Yeah. I’m spontaneously making up a new rule for myself about public speaking. It's to get a poem in there as early as possible. It’s my new rule that I’m going to use because—

Stafford: Yeah. The secret way to do it is don’t say here’s a poem, just start saying it.

Doherty: Yes. Yeah. Because it creates this container, you know. That’s different. Immediately.

Stafford: I think poetry is human birdsong.

Doherty: Yeah. That’s great. That’s another one I’m going to put in my list there, Kim. What are you thinking about, Panu?

Pihkala: Well, I’m thinking about exactly the same thing that Kim described here. That it’s been a very good moment of spending time with quite deep issues in life. And with both shades of sadness and lots of shade of joy and wonder. So I’m very grateful for this opportunity. And I hope that you listeners can continue having these kinds of moments. But warm thanks, Kim, for joining us. It’s been truly a pleasure.

Stafford: Thank you both so much.

Doherty: Yeah. And so. Yeah, Kim, you’re starting your day here. What does your day hold for you today?

Stafford: Oh I’m doing an old man thing. I’m organizing my archive. I’ve been a hoarder of paper. There are thousands of pages. I’m trying to organize.

Doherty: Wow.

Stafford: Clean out my house. Ship it all off to the library so when I’m gone, people can go in—like going into a forest—and find strange and magical things.

Doherty: So you’re harvesting, right? That’s that way I think about that. You’ve got the beauty of harvesting. You don’t have to, you know, you’re not being the seed at this particular moment. You’re being the harvest.

Stafford: Yeah, although I start the day with writing a poem. And then spend the rest of the day organizing all the poems I’ve written.
Doherty: That’s great. I think we could all stand to harvest things. I know the book project I’m working on. I’m trying to think of it as a harvest of insights and things. And that’s something I’ll be working on today as well as seeing some therapy clients. And also doing my training with therapists who are trying to help in the climate crisis. So I’ll be doing that kind of stuff today. Panu, how’s your evening for you?

Pihkala: Well, you know, after daylight savings time and now the evenings are even darker and mornings have more light. But the same as usual so the boys are soon going to come home. So there’s some family time to be had.

Doherty: Well, it is a dark time. Just in the seasons here. In the Northern Hemisphere, anyway. And so this has been a nice kind of bright candle light or sunlight. Whatever image you want to use for a discussion for us at this time of the year. So I wish you all well and we’re going to put a bunch of links in our show notes of poems and all the little beautiful insights that came up today. And to the listeners and you both, be well and take care.

Stafford: Thank you.

Pihkala: Take care.

Doherty: The Climate Change and Happiness Podcast is a self-funded, volunteer effort. Please support us so we can keep bringing you messages of coping and thriving. See the donate page at climatechangeandhappiness.com.

29 episoade